National Sections of the L5I:

The Grillo Phenomenon

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The Italian general election did not give a parliamentary majority to any party, or even coalition of parties – but it did produce a very clear winner; the Five Stars Movement created, led and dominated by Beppe Grillo. With 25.5 per cent of the vote in the lower house and 23.8 percent in the upper, the M5S, as it is known, is the biggest single party in the parliament. To achieve such figures in its first national election campaign would be significant enough but to do it without any of the standard campaigning techniques of the TV and press and on a platform that not only rejected the austerity package but also the entire political system, clearly marks a profound shift in Italian politics. But a shift in which direction?

Beppe Grillo, 64, and from Genoa, was a popular TV comedian who leapt to notoriety in the 1980s when he made a joke about the well-known corruption of Bettino Craxi's Socialist party on national television. He at once fell foul of the entire political establishment and was effectively banished from the airwaves. In effect, however, this served only to enhance his reputation. His stand-up shows, precisely because they could only be seen live, attracted large crowds and served as something of a focus, especially for disaffected youth. He regularly targeted the incredible levels of political corruption, clientelism and cronyism of the Italian political establishment, especially during Berlusconi's last administration, and made an impact in the famous Parmalat scandal.

In 2007, he decided to begin active political campaigning – not in the traditional way but by mobilising his already large following. Via the web, he launched huge mobilisations against the politicians. On September 8, he organized a "V-Day Celebration" where the "V" stood for vaffanculo (meaning something between ‘go fuck yourself!’ and ‘up your arse!’). At the first rally, Grillo named two dozen politicians who had been convicted of everything from corruption and tax evasion to abetting murder. The second V-Day followed on 25 April 2008, in Turin, and the target this time was the Italian press and the lucrative subsidies it receives from the government. He also attacked it for being on the wrong side on ecological issues like waste incinerators, and for supporting NATO bases in Italy.

In 2010, he launched "Movimento 5 stelle" ("Five Stars Movement") and this became a party to campaign in regional elections. The “Five Stars” referred to the major issues around which the campaign centred: public water, sustainable mobility, development, connectivity, and environmentalism. The new movement, which could be joined via the Internet, heavily stressed “clean values” such as honesty in public service, and direct democracy, demanding that all the professional politicians be driven out, echoing the popular Argentinian slogan “Que se vayan todos!” - they should all go! This remains a central axis of Grillo’s aggressive and uncompromising attacks on politicians. He argues that those elected should be limited to a maximum of two terms, have no other jobs, be paid the average wage and be barred from serving if they have criminal records.

In the 2010 regional elections, four M5S regional councillors were elected and the party made more progress at the 2012 local elections, receiving the third highest number of votes and winning the mayoral election in Parma.

Grillo has used the new technology and social media to organise his party, ironic since he once used to smash computers in his shows. Over one million people have liked his Facebook page and he has a million followers on Twitter. He tweets rather than giving press interviews or appearing on television. Indeed, it is precisely these means that have enabled him to circumvent the state broadcaster RAI and Berlusconi’s near monopoly of the rest.

Moreover, unlike standard politicians, he uses the social media to support and mobilise various forms of activism, linking online and offline activities and discussions. His followers have used this method to relate Five Star themes to local issues in their own cities and towns and created 532 Grillo meet-up groups which form the nucleus of the movement and had 87,895 members in 446 cities by November 2012.

Grillo communicates with his followers mainly by means of his enormously popular blog, available in English and Japanese, as well as Italian, at .
During the general election campaign, he toured the length and breadth of Italy in a camper van, attracting tens, and even hundreds, of thousands to over 70 rallies. His main demands were that there should be a major reform of the electoral law, a referendum on remaining in the eurozone, cuts in politicians' privileges, a minimum income for the unemployed, laws to enforce clean energy and free access for all to the internet.

None of the candidates put up by the movement are professional politicians or have any experience whatsoever in parliament or government. Grillo himself did not stand because he has a 1980 conviction for manslaughter (in a driving accident) and defends the principle that no one with a criminal conviction should be allowed to stand for office.

So what sort of people are the Five Star candidates and what do they stand for? One of them, Sebastiano Barbanti, a 36-year-old marketing strategist elected in the impoverished southern region of Calabri, told Reuters, "The ideologies are finished, ideas aren't right-wing or left-wing, they are good or bad." He claimed the "model" should be the policies pursued by the M5S regional councillors in Sicily, who gave up 75 per cent of their official salaries and pooled the money saved to provide cheap credit to small businesses. Cheap credit is, of course, one of the classic demands of small scale capital.

After the general election, Grillo rejected Bersani’s overtures to support a centre left government with contempt. He stated that the Five Start Movement would not enter a coalition with any of the other parties but would stand aside, expecting the main traditional parties to form a grand coalition, which he believed would soon break down and thereby finally discredit them with their voters. In the ensuing election he predicted that his party would make major gains, sweeping away most of the old politicians.

“We'll go into parliament and we won't even think of messy deals, not even teeny weeny messy deals. We'll be an extraordinary force and we'll do everything that we have said we'll do in the election campaign. Citizen's income, let's start by being alongside the most vulnerable: nobody must get left behind. Let's start to use different words. There'll be 150 of us inside and a few million outside. .... We'll start to do what we've always said - our stars: water in public hands, schools in public hands, public health service. If they follow us they follow us. If they don't, the battle will be very harsh for them, very harsh."

But Grillo’s hatred for the centre left, as well as the right, and his purely negative stance to entering or supporting a government, has provoked a revolt amongst his own followers. Already, 150,000 have signed an online petition calling for him to open a dialogue with the Centre Left alliance led by the Democratic Party, the biggest force in parliament. It will be interesting to see how the supposedly superior model of “virtual” democracy works and whether Grillo will succumb to an online plebiscite.

Of course, it is possible that some of the Five Star Movement's deputies will fall for the blandishments of the regular politicians to “make practical politics” but Grillo himself has said he wants nothing short of a political revolution in the sense of clearing out the whole old gang of politicians. As Hans-Jürgen Schlamp in Der Spiegel commented, “Nothing will change, in fact, unless everything changes. That is Grillo's logic. And many Italians, especially younger ones, agree with him.”

So what can be said of Grillo’s political stance? Is he right or left; anti- or pro-capitalist?

Well, for a start, despite his “ordinary man” image, Grillo himself is a millionaire. In 2011, he paid taxes on an official income of €4.5 million, though of course this is small beer compared to the likes of Berlusconi. In addition, there is some serious money from the new technology industries in particular from Roberto Casaleggio, a successful information technology executive, former head of the Italian operations of the British firm Logica who founded his own company, Casaleggio Associati.

Casaleggio’s employees form an important base for M5S activities. He is an uncompromising apostle, as one might expect, of the transformative powers of the new media and their capacity to do away with parties altogether. He claims he is for a "new, direct democracy that will see the elimination of all barriers between the citizen and the state". But this direct democracy is not even that of the town squares and the assemblies. If the “demos” cannot impose its will on its millionaire benefactors, then it is no democracy at all, indeed it is potentially a worse system than parliamentary democracy.

When challenged by some members who were discontented with how the Movement's policies were decided, he responded, “The statute contains the rules. If they want to change the rules, they can create another movement!” “And who wrote the statute?” asked the interviewer, "Grillo and I" Casaleggio replied.” (Guardian January 3, 2013)

In short, this popular movement is led and controlled by two millionaires. Without a system of democratically choosing either candidates or party leaders, participation via the Internet, face book, twitter etc is simply a high-tech version of the plebiscite. It allows for, and promotes, a bonapartist notion of leadership. Moreover, though the M5S recently claimed it has more than 255,000 members, only 31,612 registered to take part in the selection of its candidates and, of those, only 20,252 actually did so. In no sense is this a democratic movement and if it were to become one, it would have to create party structures, including representative ones, and hold conferences and adopt a programme.

The Wu Ming Italian writers' collective argues that the Five Stars Movement is a pro-systemic alternative to the real mass popular movements like Occupy in the USA, the Indignados in Spain and the whole anti-austerity movement in Greece:

“In Italy, a large share of ‘indignation’ was intercepted and organized by Grillo and Casaleggio, two wealthy men in their sixties with a background in the entertainment industry and in marketing. They created a hybrid franchise, a blend of economy and politics, with its own copyright and trademark. Their movement is rigidly structured and organized from the top, collecting and proposing mobilization and buzzwords from social movements, mixed with apologies for a ‘healthy capitalism’ and superficial praise for the individual honesty of those who rule and administer in the public good. Their program is a confused mixture of neoliberal and anti-capitalist, centralism and federalism, liberal and conservative values. A one-size-fits-all program, without a clear aim, typical of all political ‘diversions’.” (See

This is certainly a more clear-headed assessment than the simplistic characterisation of the M5S as an “anti-corruption, left wing party” presented by the Socialist Worker in the UK in the immediate aftermath of the election. But is it enough to say it is a “diversion”, after all, even diversions lead somewhere – in what direction could Grillo be taking his followers?

What is clear is that this movement is not working class but neither does it represent a significant sector of big capital, not yet anyway. It is in short what Marxists characterise as a petit bourgeois populist movement, though one with a pro-capitalist, not an anticapitalist, programme. And it is one that could turn to the right. Though Grillo has taken up various left wing and even “anti imperialist” causes, such as opposition to the occupation of Afghanistan, his populism can swing to the right as well as left. His sort of anti-politician populism has a long history in Italy where it has drawn on anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism and even certain strands of fascism.

While it is true that he has expressed his support for phenomena like the Purple Movement of 2010, part of a long tradition of anti-corruption movements in Italy, he has also adopted some very right wing, indeed racist, demands such as opposing the granting of Italian citizenship to the children of immigrants. In October 2007 a post appeared on Grillo's blog called “Desecrated Borders”. It said that “a country cannot throw onto the shoulders of its own people the problems caused by tens of thousands of Roma people from Romania who are arriving in Italy”, and described the problem as “a volcano, a time bomb”. Even more alarmingly, he has not only refused to define himself as “antifascist” and said that he has no objection to members of Casa Pound, a neo-Nazi “social movement” that violently attacks left wingers, joining his movement, but has participated in friendly discussions with Casa Pound on television.

Nor is that an isolated example of Grillo mixing with elements of the neo-fascist Right. One of his “economic advisers” is a financial operator, Eugenio Benettazzo, whose controversial articles are often published on Grillo's website. Benettazzo can be seen sometimes at meetings organised by the neo-fascist party Forza Nuova. He wrote a controversial article in which he argued that the financial crisis occurred in the USA because of “racial promiscuity”.

Similarly, while Grillo has said very little about any proposed economic programme, during the recent election campaign, at a rally in Brindisi, he said, “I want a State with balls, let us get rid of the unions, an old structure like the parties. There’s no longer a need for trade unions. Companies should belong to those who work.” This is precisely the kind of pseudo-radical language that has also been used by fascists. It draws on the widespread recognition that Italy's trade unions have failed to defend their members or more general working class interests but, rather than calling for more effective unions, controlled by their rank and file members, it demands that a strong state should abolish them as “no longer necessary”.

The same can be said of the apparently radical “Companies should belong to those who work”. Even if this is interpreted to mean ownership by the workers employed in a given company, it is still a defence of private property – quite the opposite of the social ownership of the means of production and by no means the same as the call for workers' control of capitalist companies as a transitional demand towards expropriation.

These objections are not a quibbling with words. The outcome of the Italian election will undoubtedly deepen the crisis of Italian society and a crisis always accelerates the polarisation of society. This does not mean, however, that there is immediately a clear cut choice to make between the class interests of big capital and those of the working class. On the contrary, in the process of polarisation all sorts of intermediate and transitional political currents are stirred up and this is most true of those strata of society who, because of their objective social position and their subjective history and loyalties, do not immediately identify with either of the main classes.

These strata are undoubtedly hard hit by the crisis and are more volatile in their response to it. Although their interests cannot be served by the bourgeoisie's programme of austerity, whose real purpose is to transfer wealth to the biggest capital formations, that does not mean they will spontaneously swing to the side of the working class. For that, the working class must show itself determined to impose its own solutions on the crisis – and for that it needs a mass party built on a clear programme for the overthrow of the capitalist system, not an inchoate mass movement controlled from the top down by two millionaires.